Understanding how natural disasters can influence terrorism is a crucial proposition in the field of security studies. This is consistent with the vision of the Copenhagen School of international relations, which is to broaden the definition of security to include a number of topics and issues, particularly in light of the negative effects of natural disasters that make countries vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
This paper examines areas of impact and vulnerability between natural disasters and terrorist organizations by focusing on the most significant recent natural disasters experienced by the international community and how terrorist organizations responded to them.
A large portion of southern Turkey and northern Syria were significantly affected by the earthquake that occurred on 6 February. The earthquake also caused a humanitarian catastrophe that had a significant impact on the security of the affected areas. Given this circumstance, the terrorist organizations’ reactions to the earthquake varied, especially since some of them were in charge of the regions where it occurred, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which started to act in an effort to establish itself as a major player in the scene.
On 8 February, in Idlib, the HTS leader, Mohammad Al-Julani, held a press conference to discuss the measures the HTS had taken in response to the effects of the earthquake. During the press conference, he announced the formation of an emergency response committee to handle the crisis and discussed how it would coordinate the efforts of volunteer teams, fundraising drives, and civil defense teams.
On 9 February Al-Julani held a second press conference to announce the beginning of the emergency response committee’s second phase of work, which will involve, among other things, facilitating the entry, support, and protection of medical and relief teams, ensuring the full evacuation of damaged buildings, relocating displaced people to temporary housing, and distributing needed supplies and monetary aid.
Regarding the Islamic State’s (IS) handling of the events, it did so in two distinct contexts.
The first is propaganda, as evidenced by the editorial in Al-Naba’, Issue 377 of 9 February, which was titled “And We send not the signs except as a warning” and focused on two main points: 1) clarifying that the earthquake’s purpose is to frighten the worshipers into returning to their Lord and 2) emphasizing that frequent earthquakes are signs of the approaching of the Day of Judgment and the Resurrection.
The second is operational, where IS benefited from the Syrian government diverting resources to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake by, on the one hand, smuggling its members and, on the other, stepping up its activity. For instance, on 7 February, about 20 of its members escaped from a prison in northwest Syria after inciting civil disobedience following the earthquake. Additionally, on 12 February, IS committed the “Badiya Massacre” in Palmyra, in the eastern countryside of Homs, central Syria, which claimed the lives of 53 people, stressing that the earthquake is a lesson, a sermon, and a sign of God that aims to correct the condition of the servants, pointing out that sins and wrongdoers are among the causes of afflictions, and repentance from them is among the reasons for lifting.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations adopted a different strategy than HTS and IS. It made no effort to actually aid earthquake victims, nor did it try to take advantage of the situation to expand its operations. Instead, it took a limited approach to the event, focusing on expressing sympathy and condolences for the victims. In a statement titled “Sympathy and Condolence to Earthquake Victims”, Tanzim Hurras al-Din [Guardians of Religion Organization], an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Syria, highlighting that the earthquake is a lesson and a sermon and one of God’s signs for people to correct their actions and highlighting that sins and wrongdoers are among the causes of afflictions, and that that turning from them is one of the reasons for lifting infestation.
Additionally, on 19 February, under the heading “Condolences and reminder: Your Lord is asking you to seek forgiveness, so seek forgiveness”, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) [Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims] expressed their condolences to the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria. The proclamation urged Muslims worldwide to aid the victims in Turkey and Syria.
In the same vein, the central leadership of Al-Qaeda released a statement on 20 February under the heading “Consolation, Supplication, and Support for Our Muslim Brothers in Turkey and the Levant”, expressing deep sorrow for the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, stressing that the earthquake is only a divine warning and test from God, and directing the call to all Muslims to aid those affected.
Consequently, terrorist groups have reacted to the earthquake in three distinct ways, each one based on exploiting the crisis for its own ends.
The first pattern is acting as a replacement for states, which is demonstrated by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s response, which sought to position itself as an alternative model for the state by establishing an emergency response committee in response to the crisis, with the intention of establishing its legality on the one hand and increasing its popularity among the populace on the other.
The second pattern involved capitalizing on the crisis. This was reflected in the IS’ response, which attempted to take advantage of the earthquake by implementing the Badiya Massacre, a show-off propaganda act meant to confirm the IS’ presence and capacity to threaten in light of the recent decline in its main strongholds.
The third pattern is that of giving advice and direction, which can be seen in the reaction of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The group’s use of the event was limited to issuing statements that offered condolences to the victims and urged people to turn back to God because they believe earthquakes are nothing more than an affliction from God. This belief is consistent with the group’s view of itself as an elite movement tasked with leading and advising the nation toward true Islam.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of 2020 caused a state of health and security confusion throughout the international system, with knock-on effects on state and societal security as terrorist groups looked to capitalize on the pandemic’s effects. Terrorist groups tried to use the pandemic’s effects to their advantage in order to increase their activity. Given the diversity of their goals and motivations, terrorist organizations’ responses to the pandemic varied.
IS responded to the coronavirus pandemic with extreme pragmatism, employing the virus on the media, operational, and logistical levels. On a media level, it attempted to discredit its rivals by presenting the virus’ spread as divine vengeance. According to an article titled “The Vengeance of Your Lord is Severe” in Al-Naba’ newspaper Issue 220, published on 6 February 2020, the practices of China’s government toward IS are responsible for the epidemic’s spread there. Additionally, the editorial in the 223rd issue of Al-Naba’ newspaper, published on 27 February 2020, with the headline “Away go those whom you call on except He”, discussed the virus’s spread in the Iranian city of Qom and argued that it is God’s divine retribution against those who worship others beside Allah.
At the operational level, IS urged its supporters to capitalize on the aftermath of the pandemic by engaging in terrorist attacks. Under the headline “The Crusaders’ Worst Nightmare”, the editorial of Issue 226 of Al-Naba’ newspaper, published on 19 March 2020, urged its readers to carry out terrorist operations within European cities. As can be seen in Figure 1, IS was eager to increase its activity across its provinces, especially in Iraq and Syria, where casualties had been rising steadily since March, April, and May 2020. This trend continued through the end of November 2020.
Figure 1: Terrorist attacks by IS in Iraq and Syria, 2020
On a logistical level, IS profited from the epidemic by setting up a website and Facebook sales pages to sell facemasks and other medical supplies, then transferring the proceeds to IS. This was done by one of IS’ supporters in Turkey.
HTS took a different tack than IS when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. The Syrian Salvation Government, to which HTS has pledged allegiance since 14 March 2020, has been working to provide preventive instructions to residents in its areas of influence. This has included both online and on-the-ground campaigns to disseminate information about precautionary measures. For this purpose, online and on-the-ground campaigns have been launched to educate the public about safety measures and an emergency response committee was formed on 23 March to coordinate between different government agencies.
Similarly, on 22 March 2020, HTS Sharia and military judge Yahya Bin Taher Al-Farghali released a video titled “Sharia’a Guidelines for Dealing with the Coronavirus” in which he emphasized that the believer’s response to afflictions is distinct from the infidel’s. He claims that believers view any suffering they undergo as a gift from God. For protection against the pandemic, he recommended ruqiyah or maintaining the morning and evening adhkar [remembrances] as a prophetic and Qur’anic remedy.
The central leadership of Al-Qaeda took a directive approach, issuing a statement on 31 March 2020 titled “The Way for Humanity to Get out of the Belly of the Whale: Commandments and Revelations regarding the Coronavirus Pandemic”, which was built on two main pillars: 1) the claim that the spread of vice and immorality in Muslim nations and the distance from God’s way are what caused this epidemic and 2) an invitation to the West to convert to Islam on the grounds that Islam is a pure and preventive religion that wants to shield its followers from all epidemics.
In a different setting, the Somali Youth Movement, one of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations, has dealt with the pandemic more interactively than Al-Qaeda’s top leadership. It announced the opening of a center to treat people infected with Covid-19 on 13 May 2020, and a committee to monitor the pandemic in Islamic parts of Somalia. Furthermore, on 31 March 2021, the organization issued a second statement warning against using the AstraZeneca vaccine for the coronavirus due to concerns that it may be linked to rare blood clots, citing the suspension of the vaccine by 12 European countries in the middle of March 2021.
By examining the aforementioned data, it can be concluded that these organizations’ responses to the pandemic differ in light of their various motivations and goals, which is a replication of how they responded to the earthquake as previously discussed. It should be noted that the SYM dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the HTS dealing with the effects of the earthquake are similar in that both are attempting to present a model that will support their legitimacy and help them become more well-liked in their respective local communities.
One of the most pressing problems the world faces today is climate change, which has far-reaching implications for regional and global security. Because of the changes in natural resources brought on by climate change, such as desertification, sea level rise, and water desiccation, which in turn bring about an increase in political instability, climate change helps to strengthen the activity of terrorist organizations.
Three main strategies have been employed by terrorist groups to profit from climate change’s negative effects. First, some groups have started using it in speeches as a way to attack their rivals. For instance, in 2010, a recording of al-Qaeda’s then-leader Osama bin Laden was released, in which he blamed the United States for the climate crisis the world is experiencing by drawing a connection between global warming and the economic progress of the United States.
Furthermore, some organizations used it to their advantage as a spark for further action. In Syria, where drought, water scarcity, and rapid population growth caused a population shift from rural areas to densely populated cities, climate change played a role in the rise of IS. As unemployment rates increased, competition for resources intensified, and competition between urban populations and resource-poor internally displaced persons (IDPs) escalated, ethnic, social, and political divisions that were already present grew worse.
This happened at the same time that fighting between the government and the Free Syrian Army was causing chaos and instability and giving terrorist groups, especially IS, the chance to take over sizable portions of Syrian territory. Thus, it is possible to conclude that climate change, in conjunction with indicators of Syrian fragility, contributed to the expansion of IS’ activity.
Third, terrorist organizations used the economic hardships caused by climate change to recruit new members by offering financial support to those who had previously been impoverished. The Boko Haram model stands out in this regard because it capitalized on the negative effects of Lake Chad’s depletion, taking advantage of the security vacuum left by the decline of state power and exploiting the resulting insecurity and economic stagnation.
Boko Haram initially positioned itself as a defender of Islamic law, luring the poor and jobless, providing food, and facilitating loans for small businesses with the intention of taking advantage of people’s financial needs in an effort to fill the gap left by the erosion of state authority on the one hand, and to attract followers by offering financial incentives and facilities on the other.
Later on, when it had already established itself in the neighborhoods, Boko Haram shifted its approach by resorting to kidnappings, threats of violence, and other forms of coercion. Thus, it can be said that the social and economic consequences of Lake Chad’s shrinkage contributed significantly to Boko Haram’s escalation of violence, making it one of the deadliest terrorist groups in both the world and Africa.
Considering the foregoing, it’s helpful to go over the following basic observations:
1- All terrorist groups share the belief that natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, are Allah’s wrath for humanity’s transgressions against His teachings. This argument aims to intimidate societies in an effort to, on the one hand, undermine the legitimacy of their actions and, on the other, draw more individuals into its fold.
2- Despite the rationality that motivates terrorist organizations to avoid terrorist operations in the wake of natural disasters in order to avoid alienating sympathizers, some organizations at the moment lack this rationality, particularly IS, which started to ramp up its operations during the earthquake and the pandemic. This can be interpreted in light of IS’ constant use of propaganda to improve the perception of its jihadist ideology.
3- Terrorist groups attempt to position themselves as alternatives to states during natural disasters because these events make states more vulnerable and weaker and exacerbate existing problems. As a result, terrorist groups attempt to fill the void left by the collapse of security by offering essential services to the populace in order to gain legitimacy and trust.
4- In times of natural disasters, countries’ security priorities shift, with terrorist threats losing importance in favor of the difficulties and conditions brought on by natural disasters. In other words, as countries devote their resources to prevention and relief efforts, budgets for counterterrorism operations shrink. This has a direct impact on the activity of terrorist groups, whether through recruitment, conducting operations, or seizing the opportunity presented by the waning legitimacy of states to position themselves as a viable alternative.
5- Natural resources have consequences for terrorist groups. Although there are numerous theses that support the idea that natural disasters may cause states to respond insufficiently and cause social unrest to worsen, giving terrorist organizations a chance to intensify their activity, there are also negative effects of natural disasters on terrorist organizations.
For instance, HTS may have suffered losses as a result of the Syrian earthquake because the province of Idlib, which is under HTS’ control, was one of the hardest hit in the country. On the one hand, earthquakes could change the region’s geography, which could have an impact on the supply and financial networks that cross borders to transport weapons to the HTS. On the other hand, some analyses contend that the pandemic’s restrictions on personal freedom of movement and travel served as a barrier to some terrorist organizations’ activities and restricted the movement of their members.
In conclusion, the recent natural disasters that the world community had to endure had an effect on the behavior of terrorist organizations, as these organizations’ interactions with them varied depending on a number of factors: their short-term goals, the local context in which they exist, the strength or weakness of the countries they target, and the responses and changes brought about by natural disasters. This proposition does not, however, discount the fact that terrorist organizations are trying to use natural disasters in accordance with their own vision and context, which demonstrates the adaptability of these groups and highlights the need to broaden the concept of security to meet these challenges.